One of the first things to know about Matthew 5:17-20 is that it is essentially unique to the gospel of Matthew. It seems to be an introduction to the topics Jesus addresses in verses 5:21 through 5:48. He reminds his audience in each of the following passages of what they have been previously taught as he introduces each issue: “You have heard it said.” But then he shows them the true spiritual depth of these commands: “But I say to you.”
But first, beginning in 5:17, Jesus used four full verses to be sure his audience clearly understood that what he was about to teach them was not abolishing or nullifying the Law and the Prophets. This was a typical way to refer the entire Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament for Christians). The Law referred to the Torah; or Pentateuch; the first five books of the Bible. Jesus did not intend to bring about an extreme makeover or a demolition of the teachings of the Old Testament. Rather, he wanted to fulfill them.
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. (Matthew 5:17)
Leon Morris pointed out in his commentary on Matthew that by using the Greek word for fulfillment, Jesus was speaking of more than obedience to regulations here. There is a sense of continued obedience; or of completing; or bringing about its full meaning. Perhaps something from all three was within his use of the Greek word here. Morris also observed there are 613 commandments in the Old Testament, 248 positive ones and 365 negative ones. Using hyperbole, Jesus said that not even the smallest letter or even a part of a letter from any word in the Law would pass away before the entire creation (heaven and earth).
For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. (Matthew 5:18)
Therefore, anyone who relaxed or nullified one of the least of the commandments in the Scriptures and taught others to do the same would not be recognized for their efforts in heaven. But whoever did them and taught others to keep the commandments would be recognized in heaven for their efforts. Misunderstanding what Jesus was saying here would provide fertile ground for legalism to flourish. Legalists keep the letter of a commandment while nullifying its spirit. To “fulfill” is not the same as to “keep.” And Jesus now was about to catch two of the most religious groups of his time off guard.
Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:19)
The two religious groups widely recognized for their knowledge of the Law and their zeal for keeping the commandments of the Law at the time were the scribes and the Pharisees respectively. So up until verse 5:20, any scribe or Pharisee hearing what Jesus said would have been nodding his head in agreement. They knew and kept the commandments—and were proud of it. They taught others what should be done to enter into heaven. Surely they were the ones who would be called “great” in the kingdom of heaven. But no—Jesus said to his audience, your righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees!
Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)
If you weren’t MORE righteous than the two highest status religious groups of that time, you couldn’t enter the kingdom of heaven. The message was that getting to heaven was more than knowing and keeping the commandments. The legalism and religiosity of the scribes and Pharisees won’t cut it. Your righteousness has to be better than theirs. Now Jesus had a captive audience. What could he possibly be about to say that would fulfill the Law and the Prophets? How would he apply the Law and the Prophets so differently from what the scribes and the Pharisees taught?
Broadly speaking, scribes were individuals who could read and write—talents that were not common to most individuals back then. These talents meant they would serve as secretaries or clerks—a higher status and function than we would think of today. Scribes in Jewish times were seen as men of wisdom, who studied the Law. They were teachers and legal experts with religious authority. The Dictionary of New Testament Background said Jewish scribes applied the general instructions of the Torah to daily living. They even extended the law to theoretical situations “To build a safety net against inadvertent breaches.”
The Pharisees seem to have been drawn more from the laity and not from the priestly or aristocratic classes. They too were experts and strict interpreters of the Mosaic Law. They developed a comprehensive set of oral extensions of the Law, which were to maintain their religious identity and purity. There are even some references to the scribes of the Pharisees (Mark 2:16 and Acts 23:9), possibly suggesting that scribes were a subgroup of Pharisees. Alternatively, the sect of Pharisees could have had individuals who could read and write and thus acted as scribes within the sect.
Nevertheless, it seems that both groups were singled out as religious leaders who didn’t practice what they preached. In chapter 23 of Matthew, Jesus said: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice” (Matthew 23:2-3). So here in chapter 5 of Matthew, Jesus is saying that you have to walk your talk—you have to practice what you preach—to get to heaven. Again, Leon Morris summarized the intent succinctly:
Jesus’ understanding of keeping the law meant a great deal more than making sure that the letter of the law was not infringed. For him it was important that the deeper implications of what God had commanded be understood and put into practice.
The application here for recovery is in the call to “walk your talk.” Just as Jesus said that those who both taught and did the commandments would be great in the kingdom of heaven, those who practice what they preach in recovery will stay sober and help others to stay sober at the same time. True spirituality in Christianity and in recovery is when someone lives out what they tell others. They don’t just know the Bible or the Big Book—they strive to live it.
There are parallels to “scribes” and “Pharisees” in 12 Step Recovery as well. When you see someone affirming the truth of a Step or a saying, but not truly living out the spirit of it’s meaning, then you are keeping rather than fulfilling it. Here is an example: individuals who only count abstinent time with their drug of choice. Someone could be in Alcoholics Anonymous and rationalize they aren’t drinking alcohol anymore, but they smoke marijuana. A heroin addict might say they never had a problem with alcohol, so its okay if they drink, as long as they don’t use heroin. I also don’t think that having a doctor diagnose you with an anxiety disorder means you can take benzodiazepines. Taking a mind-altering and mood changing substance to not use another mind-altering or mood changing substance is not walking your talk.
Recovery is not just knowing and “keeping” the Steps, but fulfilling them in your life—and then passing how to do that on to others.
This is part of a series of reflections dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”